ATHENS, Greece (JTA) — For every Jew who lives in Greece, there are about 100 Greeks who voted for the country’s neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, last spring.
The party now controls 18 seats in Greece’s 300-member parliament, and its popularity is rising rapidly: A poll taken in October showed that if elections were held again today, Golden Dawn would capture 14 percent of the vote, making it Greece’s third-largest party. A September poll showed that 22 percent of Greeks have positive views of Golden Dawn, up from 12 percent in May.
With its swastika-like flag, gangs of black-shirted thugs attacking immigrants and its ideology of Greek racial superiority, Golden Dawn’s sudden and significant rise has prompted condemnations from around the world.
It also has put many of Greece’s 5,000 Jews on edge. Community leaders already have begun a campaign to educate Greeks about the dangers of allowing a neo-Nazi party to flourish, and Greek Jews are trying to figure out what more they can do to arrest Golden Dawn’s rise.
“We definitely think that a very basic tool to promoting social equality and combating the rise of extremists like Golden Dawn is educating schoolchildren,” said Zanet Battinou, director the Jewish Museum of Greece.
The museum and its programs teach visiting schoolchildren about Greece’s Jewish community, its heritage and, in particular, about the Holocaust, in which more than 80 percent of Greek Jews were murdered.
The museum also has set up a traveling exhibition, works extensively with Greek schools to aid in teaching about the Holocaust and, together with the Israeli Embassy in Athens, sent 24 Greek teachers to the International School for Holocaust Studies at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem.
“It certainly is a very strong weapon against misinformation, bigotry and prejudice,” Battinou said. “But the biggest benefit is, and should be, to teach young people to think for themselves.”
While Golden Dawn mostly has targeted those it holds responsible for Greece’s dire economic plight and its international humiliation — immigrants from Asia and Africa, politicians and the Communist opposition — the party also has a clear anti-Semitic streak.
Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, denies there were gas chambers or ovens at Nazi death camps and has a penchant for giving the Nazi salute. Statements from the party refer to Israel as a “Zionist terror state.” Party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who made international headlines when he punched a female Communist Party member in the face during a live television debate, recently read out a passage from the anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in parliament.
“We must react to everything they do against the Jews,” David Saltiel, president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, told JTA. “We protest, we fight in every instance where there are displays of anti-Semitism and will not let ourselves fall down. We take every measure we can within the spirit of democracy.”
The Greek Jewish community is also trying to maintain a dialogue with the government and mainstream political parties and urging them to take a stronger stand, according to Saltiel.
Outside Jewish groups are stepping in, too. In response to the rise of Golden Dawn, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which assists Greece’s 500 Holocaust survivors, has begun funding the Greek Jewish museum’s traveling exhibition on anti-Semitism.
“For survivors that went through what these people went through during the war, many of whom were saved by the underground efforts of other Greeks, they never expected that in their lifetime they would see Greek support for a Nazi-like party,” said the Claims Conference’s chairman, Julius Berman. “There must be complete horror.”
Golden Dawn’s political ascendance has been fast and furious, propelled by a Greek public weary of five years of economic depression, massive unemployment and what they see as Greece’s international humiliation and its betrayal by the politicians who got them into this mess. Similar factors led to Hitler’s rise in Weimar Germany, some have noted.
For years, Golden Dawn had lingered as a tiny party on the fringes of society. In the 2009 elections, the party won just 0.29 percent of the vote. But in elections in May and a do-over in June, the party captured just under 7 percent of the vote. Its popularity has been growing ever since.
Given the relatively small size of the country’s Jewish community, Jewish leaders are aware that their efforts may appear like a drop in an ocean of hate and that they alone cannot fight Golden Dawn’s rise.
“It is not possible for only a few thousand remaining Jews. There must be mainstream involvement or a big segment of the mainstream like newspapers, universities and the politicians,” said Hagen Fleischer, the emeritus professor of history at the University of Athens and an expert on the Holocaust and the German occupation of Greece.
The Austrian-born Fleischer, who is not Jewish, organized a public event aimed at countering the growth of Golden Dawn, bringing Holocaust survivors to tell their stories. But, he says, “You cannot solve the problem of Golden Dawn only with enlightenment or telling people there really was a Holocaust.”
Initially, many Greeks and leading politicians downplayed the party’s rise, dismissing it as a knee-jerk reaction from Greeks looking for a shortcut out of the country’s economic crisis but who did not really identify with Golden Dawn’s fascist ideology.
As Golden Dawn has become more brazen, violently attacking migrants, gays and Communists, disrupting theater productions deemed blasphemous and holding racist events like setting up a blood bank for pure Greek blood only, Greek political leaders have begun to mount a stronger response.
In October, parliament voted to lift the immunity of three Golden Dawn members of parliament accused of attacking immigrants. Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias announced the creation of a special police unit to deal with racist violence — a welcome move after repeated allegations that police were deliberately turning a blind eye to, or sometimes even colluding with, the black-shirted gangs in their attacks on foreigners.
Perhaps most significantly, the head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymous II, spoke out. “The Church loves all people, including those who are black, white or non-Christians,” he said.
Saltiel says these developments give him a glimmer of hope.
“If all the political groups, the church, the universities and the media come together to try and put things in the right way, I think that this will change,” he said.
Either way, the Jewish community will keep up its efforts.
“I frankly don’t know if it is enough, but it is something,” Battinou said. “And several small sources of something will hopefully amount to something far-reaching in this dark tunnel of racism and anti-Semitism.”